Historians recall the significance of the Civil War-time Pony Express

Monday, March 29, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

ST. JOSEPH — Three owners of a freight company started an express mail delivery service. They pioneered a new transportation route as an alternative to the tried and true.

These three men gambled that their high start-up costs would be recouped with a government contract.

But after 18 months, the business had no government contract and it closed its doors because technology made it obsolete. It found itself saddled with huge debts and two owners facing financial ruin.

In April, St. Joseph will celebrate the failed business' sesquicentennial. The business was officially known as the Central Overland California & Pike's Peak Express Company. It is affectionately known by almost any school child or adult as the Pony Express.

Three historians think there are valid reasons to celebrate 150 years later.

Maybe America loves the story because it involves a lone rider racing across the landscape through bad and good weather, dealing buffalo and countless other travails, said Jackie Lewin, director of the St. Joseph Museums and an authority on the Pony Express.

There is no repository of information that documents the Pony Express, said Christopher Corbett, author of the book "Orphans Preferred."

Plus, Corbett said, early scribes who wrote about the Pony Express — such as Mark Twain, William Cody and Col. William Lightfoot Vischer, the first "historian" of the Pony Express — were men who never let truth keep them from writing a good tale.

"So, I get worried when I hear someone say they absolutely know something is true about the Pony Express," Corbett said.

There are doubts about who the first rider was, who watched the first rider, how riders were armed, who rode the longest distance, what Buffalo Bill did and the list goes on, Corbett said.

One thing the author is sure of is that there wasn't an advertisement saying "orphans preferred." That poster is a 20th century creation, Corbett said.

Joe Houts, a local banker, historian and author, suggests the Pony Express played an important part in holding the union together.

"There were three attempts to pull all or part of California out of the Union as the Civil War started," Houts said. "And the Pony Express was the thin line that tied the nation's communication network together and provided California with the information that kept it in the Union."

Corbett thinks that's a reasonable observation. Even if owners William H. Russell, William B. Waddell and Alexander Majors didn't have that intent, it may very well be true, he said.

In 1860, St. Joseph was a communications epicenter, Houts said. The city was an information collection point because the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad was the furthest  point west a person could travel by train, and it was a telegraph terminal. The Pony Express shortened the time needed to communicate between California and the rest of the nation from weeks and months to days.

Although some of the details have been lost or are disputed, Corbett listed one sure reason to celebrate the Pony Express anniversary. "It boils down to the fact that the Pony Express is a story of chance and courage," he said.

And the St. Joseph Museums director believes that's enough reason for the city to celebrate.

"So for St. Joseph, the Pony Express gives us something from our past to be proud of," Lewin said.

Corbett will be the keynote speaker at the Patee House during the sesquicentennial celebrations. He will talk about some things he's learned since his book appeared in 2003.


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